Chapter 3: Saluting the Moose - the Rand 409

 
picture of Rand pioneers under the Moose
       
Where this story came from      
           
In the year 2000 I had two stories for the proposed radio series -- LEO the Lyons Computer and the first Soviet computer in Kyiv. I wondered what other intriguing stories there might be from those early days and started browsing around the internet.
           
The Rowayton Historical Society      
           
By good fortune I stumbled on the story of the Rand 409 on the Rowayton Historical Society website. I felt that tingling excitement known to every journalist as I realised this was a great story, one that had been forgotten because virtually all the original records had been lost and very little remained of any of the machines. It was even more exciting to read their account of creating an oral history record of the surviving engineers' memories, as oral history archives are like buried treasure for a radio producer, even if the recordings themselves are not quite right for a programme. In the event it seemed that fresh interviews geared towards radio would be needed and we made plans to visit them during their next reunion.
           
The Custodians      
           
Two people are primarily responsible for recovering and preserving the story of the Rand 409. Erik Rambusch, a management consultant, was the one who realised that a local history implying the UNIVAC was built in Rowayton could not be correct and decided to find out just what had actually been made in "the Barn". And Bill Wenning, one of the original engineers, has been the driving force behind finding a number of other surviving engineers and getting them together.
           
What is it about the Moose?       pic of moose
     
One of the things I have tried to capture in the book, even more than in the original radio series, is the humanity of the pioneers. Yes, the technical history is interesting too, but these were intriguing men (and some women) who had a lot of fun even while working all hours to get their amazing machines to work with some semblance of reliability. And one of the abiding memories of all we spoke to was the great stuffed moose's head that peered imperiously over the main room they worked in. It's still there today.
           
The Recording Trip      
           
We -- presenter Mark Whitaker and I -- arranged in mid-2001 to go to New York at the end of September. We had no idea of course that anything like 9/11 would happen shortly before we arrived. We stayed with Mark's brother in a Manhattan apartment, walked along streets in the evenings where almost every lamp-post had a home-made missing person poster taped to it. New Yorkers could talk of little else, and little wonder. We went into a bar opposite a fire station -- a dozen pictures were taped to the wall, each a firefighter who had been a good customer of the bar, but no more. We didn't go to see Ground Zero.
           
We did of course go to Rowayton, travelling by train from Manhattan up to the Connecticut coast, where Erik Rambusch and Bill Wenning had arranged a new reunion of the Rand 409 veterans so that we could record interviews with them. They also showed us the few remaining artefacts then held in the town museum, guided us round the Barn (now the community centre) and generally confirmed the Americans' reputation for being the most generous of hosts.
           
Technical Details
     
The Rand veterans have uncovered a few documents, such as this sales brochure of the 409-2R. It shows the "Card Sensing-Punching Unit" on the left and the "Electronic Computing Unit" on the right. This was not a design that pushed the boundaries of electronic computing (crucially it did not have a stored-program memory). But it was an ingenious and very practical way of introducing electronic computers into companies that already had long experience of mechanical punched-card calculators. And Loring Crosman, who conceived the Rand 409 in 1943, was almost certainly the first person to realise the potential of electronic computers as business tools.
     
If anyone would like to know what the brochure says about how the Rand 409 worked and some of its technical details, please email me with your request and I'll put something up on this page -- that's what this website is here for!
     
 
           
last update 18/3/05